Using consequences helps you to impose discipline in a way that teaches your children responsibility and accountability and encourages them to look inward to learn how they can do things differently in the future.
Many times parents mete out harsh consequences in the heat of the moment, saying such things as: “That’s it, no TV for a month” or “I’m tired of always cleaning up after you. I’m going to give away all of your toys to someone who will appreciate them!” They rarely follow through on such threats and then wonder why consequences don’t work. When angry, your consequences are often punitive, rather than a teaching tool. In this article, you will learn a way of using consequences that will teach your children to respect and submit appropriately to authority, to follow rules, and to accept responsibility for their behavior.
Parents use consequences as a result of their children’s behaviors. But while concerning yourself with your children’s actions, you need to discipline in a way that keeps your child’s self-esteem intact. You can do this by not ridiculing or shaming them as you discipline them. Aside from not tearing them down, you can actually build their self-esteem by holding them accountable and having expectations for their behavior – the message given is: “You are capable of doing better. I expect more of you.” Such expectations tell children that they possess the ability to behave, tolerate disappointment and frustration, delay gratification, grow, and do better – all of which builds their self-esteem.
Throughout the entire disciplining process, you want to maintain your connection with your children so they will continue to follow your guidance and seek your advice. If used appropriately, consequences will build your children’s emotional health and your relationship with them even as you discipline them. This does not mean that they will always like or appreciate your direction (at least not at the time), but you can know that you will be helping them to grow, mature, and become more responsible in the long-term.
As parents step back and think about the characteristics they would like their children to possess when they become adults, they often mention the following traits:
- Strong work ethic
to name a few. By using consequences effectively, you will help your children to be adults who exhibit these traits.
There are many, many healthy techniques you can use to discipline your children – all of which will help you to restore safety and calm things down, reinforce rules, teach your children, and help them find a way to make amends. The following discipline list shows the many techniques you can use to guide and teach your children. A consequence is just one option, and ideally you will become well-versed in using many of the techniques.
It is best to use the method that will be the least restrictive and give your children the greatest opportunity to learn from the situation. If discipline is too harsh, children will spend their energy being angry at you, rather than considering what they did wrong.
Throughout all of discipline, you are trying to teach your children, help them assume responsibility, and internalize your rules and values, while maintaining a healthy relationship with them. You can ask yourself when you need to discipline your children, “What does my child need to learn in this situation?” And as you will see, you can use consequences to teach your children what it is they need to learn.
In truth, all of your reactions, positive or negative, to your children’s behavior is a consequence. If you smile broadly when your child cleans up the kitchen without being asked, that is a consequence. If you are in a bad mood because you once again find food left out on the kitchen counter, that too is a consequence. However, for the purpose of this article, we will focus on your imposing a consequence for an infringement, that is, when you child does not behave as he should.
When discussing consequences, there are actually three main types.
The first are Natural Consequences, which happen automatically without any action on your part. For example, if your child does not wear a rain coat on a rainy day, he will get wet. If she forgets her lunch, she will be hungry. You can use Natural Consequences whenever the result is not morally, physically, or emotionally damaging. They are highly effective because as the saying goes: “Experience is the best teacher.”
The second type is Logical-Related consequences, where you step in. For example, if your child won’t dress properly for the weather, she may not go out or if he does not clean up a toy, you may clean it up and then he is not allowed to play with it for a specified amount of time. This works well when there is a specific issue and the consequences is clear.
Imposed-Not Related Consequences
The third and last type of consequence is Imposed-Not Related. You use it if you aren’t sure what to do, if you can’t think of a related consequence, if the related consequences haven’t worked in the past, or if there are multiple infractions. It involves the suspension of some or all privileges. For example, perhaps your child didn’t just leave out a toy, but also he did not clean up his toys or his clothes or his books, and this has been a recurring problem. You are frustrated and not sure what to do. At this point, all privileges are suspended. This is not the same as bribing, threatening, or punishing. It is just that when problems arise, you have to stop everything because you need to deal with the situation before you move on. Suspension of privileges is different from taking privileges away – it implies that the child will have some power in getting the privileges reinstated. It is not a “you against them” stance; rather it is a “you with them” position. Like a strong spice, this discipline tool should be used sparingly and with care. Before deciding on consequences, first ask yourself: “What does my child need to learn?” Then “Which method would be most effective to teach him?”
It is this third type of consequence involving the suspension of privileges that parents struggle most to use and which will be the focus of this article.
As part of imposing consequences, you may suspend privileges. But before you can do so, you need to understand what privileges are. Sometimes parents get so caught up in giving to their children that they miss what power they do have.
Your relationship with your children can be categorized as:
- Parental obligations – what you absolutely must give your children, such as basic nutritious food, proper medical care, school attendance, and respect.
- Privileges – what you choose to give to your children, such as special foods that meet their preferences, outings, sports, and activities.
The delineation between a privilege and an obligation may be different in different households. For example, in one family playing a sport may be a privilege, while in another, once registered, it may become an obligation. The idea is to figure out what in your household is a privilege and as such can be taken away when necessary.
These privileges are not owed to your children – there should be a give-and-take between you and your children – you give privileges if they earn them by their appropriate behavior. It may be your pleasure to give your children these privileges, but you also have the right to expect decent behavior in return.
If your children do not behave, do not listen to you, or are disrespectful, it is your right and responsibility to help them learn to do better by imposing consequences.
By getting clear about what is a privilege, you can do a better job with discipline and curbing a sense of entitlement in your children. For example, maybe you view playing a sport as an obligation because you want your child to get exercise and learn teamwork and a skill. But being on a travel team may be a privilege.
Using Suspension of Privileges as a Consequence
When other forms of discipline listed on the chart above have not worked or when the issue at hand is serious, then you may want to get your children’s attention by suspending some or all privileges. This action is not done harshly. It is done out of concern, one that says to the child: “You are important to me and what is happening is of such concern that I need to step in and help you to correct the situation.”
The first step is to teach your children what you mean by “privileges.” If you have always given to your children freely, they may not realize that they are not entitled to all they have and that some things are, in fact, a privilege that must be earned by appropriate behavior. You will need to find your own words, but for example:
“There are certain things you have that are privileges; things that you are not automatically entitled to. It is my pleasure to let you have and do these things, but when you behave in a way that goes against our family rules, then I’m going to suspend those privileges until we resolve the problem.”
You can then discuss what privileges in your home are. If done beforehand during a calm period, you can have your children brainstorm a list of privileges with you. When you find yourself needing to suspend privileges, you can then have your children put themselves on suspension, picking what privilege they will forego. Some children can be harder on themselves than their parents would be.
Other times, you may want to choose what privilege to suspend, knowing what item on the list will really get their attention. For example, taking away their cell phone while in the house may be more effective than taking away television or game cube access. You want to take away something that will get their attention, not to make them angry, but to help them realize that there is a problem and that you are not going to let them slide. You are going to hold them accountable and let them be just miserable enough that they will want to work with you to rectify the situation. Some parents find that an all-inclusive “no-screens” or “no electronics” is a broad and clear consequence that their children respond to.
Your position and feelings about privileges and consequences is very important to your effective use of consequences. If you believe you have the right to set limits and the obligation to teach appropriate behavior, that you provide your children with many privileges, that the privileges have to be earned, and that you do all this in a loving, respectful – not angry or punitive – way, you are more likely to be successful.
While parents have the power to suspend the privileges, children have the power to earn back privileges; it is not merely a matter of the privileges being suspended for a pre-determined amount of time. When a consequence is lifted according to certain time limitation set by parents, there is less learning and children have less power. When children have to do certain things to have the consequence met or lifted, more learning occurs and children have more power.
To have privileges re-instated children need to address:
- Facts: The details of the situation – the who, what, where, when?
- Opinions: What were they thinking or feeling? Why did it get them in trouble?
- Action Plans: This includes several pieces
- To whom do they need to apologize/make amends?
- What else needs to happen to correct the situation?
- What specific actions can they take to prevent it from happening again?
To keep you working together:
- Wishes and requests: What do they wish others understood? What help do they need to deal with this problem?
- Their feelings: What are their thoughts and feelings now?
How your children answer these questions can vary depending on the severity of the situation and your child’s age, maturity, and temperament.
- For a smaller issue or a younger child, you can have just a short conversation.
- For a more important issue or for a child for whom writing would feel like a punishment, you can have an in-depth conversation going through all of the questions.
- For a more serious issue, for an older child, or for an emotionally charged situation, you can have the child respond in writing.
As soon as your child has satisfactorily answered these questions, he can regain his lost privileges. Many parents are surprised to find that their children do not answer the questions as quickly as they expected. Whereas the parent may have limited computer use for a week, the child may still not answer the questions for two or three weeks. He might still be thinking through the questions. Interestingly, had these parents instituted a “punishment,” it would have been over much sooner and before the child was ready – usually before he internalized your values, held himself accountable, or gained responsibility.
Consequences are the positive or negative results of behavior. Experiencing the consequences of their behavior should allow your children the opportunity to think about what they did and how they can make amends.
When you think about consequences, you probably considered imposing consequences for your children’s misbehavior. However, the real power behind consequences is teaching your children that their behaviors have consequences for themselves and others and that they have to think about this before they act and be accountable when they “mess up.”
As you begin to use Imposed-Not Related consequences, you can expect that it will get easier over time as your children learn you mean business. If you aren’t used to enforcing limits, give yourself time to become confident in your right and need to be “the enforcer” in your home. Also, know that sometimes consequences are not effective. It may be a maturity issue and your child may need firmer structure and stricter rules to be in place through the use of non-negotiable rules.
For example, rather than continually disciplining a child for accessing social media on his computer when he is supposed to be completing homework assignments, you may need to set a rule that he can only use the computer in the kitchen where you can supervise his usage.
Some children will appreciate the clarity and respond well to the use of consequences and rules. Others may resist more. You can allow your children to disagree respectfully. However, if it becomes disrespectful, then you may need to impose another consequence. If only one privilege was suspended, you may want to revoke all. Your child will still need to go through the process for the initial offence and now for the secondary offence of being disrespectful.
What you are teaching your children is that arguing with you is not worth the effort. You mean what you say. They can start to follow your guidelines now without a lot of grief or later with a lot of grief. In the end, though, you will not be swayed by their bad behavior. You can teach them how to approach you and have a respectful conversation about the situation.
As noted author Barbara Coloroso says: “It is not the severity of the consequence that has impact; it is the certainty of it.” And while your children may feel that you are unfair and punishing them, you can let them know how important they are to you – so important they you are unwilling to give up on them; so important that you are willing to stand by the consequence you imposed. You are not opposing them; rather you are working with them to help them be the fully capable and competent people you know they can become.
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